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Dr. Michael Rader: Thoughts on Mentoring
He blew into the treatment room like a Kansas twister. And in a way, Harold “Army” Armstrong, DDS, was indeed a force of nature. Certainly no receptionist or dental assistant could safeguard an unsuspecting dentist from an unannounced Army invasion.
“Since you’re just starting, I’ll put you down for only one. You can pay me $10 when I come to deliver,” Army croaked. (He had a deep voice that only a pack of Marlboro unfiltered cigarettes could produce.)
I responded weakly, “okay,” wondering what Army had just sold me. Off he went, and a few seconds later I heard that deep, bullfrog-like voice down the hall say to my partner, “Bob, I’ll order your usual five.”
Later, Bob Lindborg told me that every year at Christmas Army visited South Bend dentists and sold fruitcakes for his church’s fundraiser. I admitted to Bob that I hated fruitcakes. Bob smiled and said he did, too. I laughed, asking, “Why five?”
“Army and I have an agreement. I pay for five but only have to take one,” Bob said.
Army was the dean of South Bend dentists. He had been the President of the North Central Dental Society way back in 1954 and had remained a fixture at our continuing education meetings, golf tournaments and social events. Army always had a kind word, corny joke or practical piece of advice for any new member. Army’s chief function when I arrived as a new dentist was to welcome newcomers to the profession and sell those fruitcakes.
Upon reflection, the most remarkable thing about Army’s kindness was how common that attitude was in those days. Mickey Molenda, John Szakaly, Tom Tanner, Gene Kuzmic and many, many established dentists reached out with a welcoming comment, word of encouragement or helpful suggestion. I remember Larry Beachy from Goshen, Daniel Berger from Jasper, Gib Eberhart from Mishawaka and Chuck Hassel from Bremen as particularity kind.
Before this missive becomes wallowed down in nostalgia, let’s ask ourselves, “Are those days over? Have we lost the collegiality that marked dentistry as a welcoming and nurturing profession?”
Dr. Marc Smith, an IDA member and chairman of the International College of Dentists Subcommittee on mentoring, has a definite opinion about the viability of mentoring today. Dr. Smith has been working with the Indiana University School of Dentistry faculty to establish a student mentoring program called “Great Expectations.”
Dr. Smith’s professional growth had been nurtured by mentors. He said that, in dental school, an upperclassman was very helpful in telling him how to study and how to approach some of the course work. But, Dr. Smith said the upperclassman mostly encouraged him and assured him that he would do okay. Later in the Army, he said he had several mentors among the professional staff of the hospitals where he was assigned.
Dr. Smith sees mentoring as an effective means to pass on professionalism to new members and assure the future of dentistry.
“Professional behavior, in and out of the office, elevates us in the public’s eyes,” said Dr. Smith. “When we appear to the public to be commercial and self-serving, we invite the public to make commercial comparisons…When this happens the public and their politicians may begin to believe that alternative avenues for health care are in their best interest.”
David Chambers, PhD., a professor of dental education and former associate dean of academics affairs and scholarship at the University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, stated clearly and succinctly the important role of a mentor: “There will always be a handful who bad-mouth the coming generations as being undertrained and improperly respectful of traditional values. These are the ones who will fight their younger colleagues for the future of the profession – and the smart money is always on the youth. There are also dentists who encourage, work with, guide, nurture, reveal secrets to, earn the privilege of scolding, and want to see the success of their junior colleagues…The older practitioner may not know all the newest materials or pharmacology, but they can teach a level of quality that is far above the standard of care. They want the new guy or gal in town to succeed because he or she will thus blend the best of the emerging discipline with the deep traditions of professionalism that cannot be learned from a few years in dental school or a CE course. These dentists who touch the future are called mentors.”1
The future of any profession rests in the next generation. Invest in the future of dentistry by inviting the new dentist in town to lunch and offer your support. Army and his generation were there for many of us, and now it is our turn. But, maybe, leave the fruitcakes at home.
Dr. Michael Rader welcomes reader comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Mentoring, David W. Chambers, Journal of the American College of Dentists, Volume 73, Number 2
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